A Conversation with Michael Melton
A marvelous holiday tradition continues in 2003 with the White House Christmas ornament honoring President Ulysses S. Grant and his family. As with all the holiday ornaments issued by the association since 1981, the ornament design celebrates a presidential administration with a few exceptions in the years commemorating landmark anniversaries in White House history. Commemorative ornaments have marked the 200th anniversaries of the founding of the presidency in 1989, the laying of the cornerstone of the White House in 1992, John and Abigail Adams first occupancy of the building in 2000, and the restoration of the White House by Theodore Roosevelt in 2002. The first ornament was associated with George Washington and this year commemorates President Ulysses S. Grant, our 18th President (1869-1877).
Q: Can you tell us how the association’s holiday ornament program began and how was the first design was developed?
A: In 1981, Bernard Meyer, the Executive Vice President of the White House Historical Association, was exploring the feasibility of producing an ornament and even had a prototype made by a Colorado firm that wasn’t considered satisfactory. In that same year, Westport Marketing Group, a marketing firm from New England, proposed that they help us develop Christmas ornaments to generate funds to accomplish our mission. A high quality copper weather vane was proposed for the design of the first ornament. Weather vanes crown many of this country’s historic buildings, including Mount Vernon and Independence Hall. An interpretative brochure accompanied the ornament. The association’s Board of Directors reviewed and approved the design, and in 1981 the ornament program was born. It became an immediate success.
Q: Many people enjoy collecting the ornaments. Can back issues be purchased from the association?
A: Only the first ornaments produced in 1981 and 1982 really can be considered rare collectibles. They were made of copper with a patina finish, a process to give the copper a weathered look. All of the ornaments in the series, including gold plated copies of the original two, can be purchased. We have finished the ornaments in 24 karat gold or pure gold to keep them bright and untarnished for years to come.
Q: When did the tradition of placing the association holiday ornament on the Blue Room tree begin and why was the ornament such an immediate hit?
A: Chief Usher Rex Scouten arranged for the 1981 ornament to be placed on the Blue Room tree for the public to see. Now is an established tradition to have the current year ornament hung on the tree. We were fortunate with the early promotion of the ornament. The National Park Service approached Willard Scott of NBC television, and he agreed to display the ornament during one of his Today Show spots on the Ellipse covering the annual Pageant of Peace. Mail orders from all parts of the country soon poured in.
Q: What is one of your most favorite memories of the ornament program?
A: It’s not one favorite memory, but the general sense of satisfaction I have gotten from the program over the years. Every year, after the Executive Committee has selected the “winning” ornament design, I work with the manufacturer to create a finished product. I am always a bit nervous to see how the ornaments will be received when they go on sale. To watch a customer walk into the gift shop and see the new ornament, then to observe their eyes light up and a smile appear on their face, that moment makes the work from all involved well worth the effort.
Michael Melton is a native of California who now resides in Burke,Virginia. He moved to the east coast in 1978 to work for the White House Liaison Office, National Park Service. An experienced administrator and manager, Mike joined the association staff in 1989 as its first Administrative Officer. He has supervised the holiday ornament program since 1991 and has written an administrative history of the first decade of program for the association.